At some point in my youth my mother decided I would collect music boxes. Actually, I don’t remember if she chose that completely on her own or if I indicated at some point that I wanted to and she ran with it. When I was young, it seemed that everyone in my family collected something – it was seen as a part of your personality, and an easy tip for gift-giving. So throughout my childhood and teen years I received music boxes of all sorts, eventually honing in on those that played show tunes to match my love of musical theatre. There’s one that plays “The Impossible Dream” and another that tings out “Hello, Dolly!” By the time I left home to strut my stuff on the Great White Way, I’d outgrown my collection so they drifted into the back of my mind, into a box in my parents’ garage. Recently I came across them and wondered what I should do with them. Even though I don’t want to keep a collection of music boxes, they’ve become somewhat sentimental to me.

I’ve never really understood the collector’s mindset – what compels someone to collect hundreds of tiny Hummel figurines, or porcelain dolls with spookily vacant faces, or antique cookie jars? I don’t have any judgment about it – actually I think it’s kind of neat, but I’ve never felt the pull to have one of my own. I often wondered if there was anything I would someday grow to love enough to start a collection.

Last week a friend of mine taught me how to knit. We met at this yarn shop and spent some time perusing the miles and miles of gorgeous yarns from all corners of the world, spun into dizzyingly beautiful skeins and stacked in racks that rose above our heads. Although there were thousands of choices, I knew as soon as I felt the soft nubby chenille yarn in shades of plum, lavender and charcoal that it was to be my first project. Giddy and proud, I bought my first skein and set of needles, and we went back to her studio for the lesson. She was patient and encouraging – a great foil for my perfectionist and judge; they could barely get a word in edgewise with her positive coaxing! I learned the stitch, very slowly and clumsily at first but then with growing ease and comfort. We chatted about all sorts of things until it was time to go.

That night I sat knitting, and thinking about the “hobbies” that feel most important to me now – gardening, cooking, baking, sewing, knitting, slowing down – and I thought to myself, maybe this is my collection. I’m collecting antique skills, special tasks passed down from woman to woman for centuries. They speak the ancient feminine, the womanly arts that have kept families clothed, fed, and nurtured for so long.

These skills have been dying over the last century, since industry and convenience became more desirable than true craft and patience. I’ve grown up in a generation that largely doesn’t know how clothing gets made, or food or the beautiful decorations that fill Target and Ikea. I forget that once upon a time people crafted their own, and grew up knowing how to do it because they had to. We don’t have to anymore, but perhaps we should. The pendulum is swinging back to center. What were once cast aside as limiting and demeaning women’s work in the feminist era are being reclaimed as links to our long feminine ancestry. As I stitch or knead or mend or tend, I am enlivening ancient knowledge.

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